Harness Your Animal Energies

Your ancient and latent animal instincts will not be denied. Despite all the efforts of civilised society, these impulses lurk beneath the surface ready to break out and overwhelm when the opportunity arises.

Nietzsche instincts culture art

This can occur most dramatically in a number of extreme situations, such as when the regulating framework of society collapses. A fictional account of this relapse into savagery is the theme of the 1954 William Golding novel Lord of the Flies, but a true account of a shipwreck that devolved into a horrifying orgy of murder and rape is recounted in the 2002 book, Batavia’s Graveyard. In that case 250 people were marooned on a remote desert island near Australia in 1628 and 110 of them were subsequently murdered by their fellow strandees – even children were not spared from this slaughter.

A perhaps even more sinister situation occurs when the societal authority itself grants its citizens exemption from all moral responsibility for acts of violence and cruelty, allowing them to vent their most brutal animal urges without censure, or even with tacit approval. The behaviour of many ordinary people in Nazi Germany or the atrocities of the Japanese army during the 'Rape of Nanking' in 1937 are illustrative.

Finally, ‘moral’ society can be considered a luxury of the comfortable, and when resources dwindle and competition for life’s essentials intensifies, niceties such as regard for one’s fellow man or woman are quickly cast aside.

Of course, in normal circumstances - with the regulating framework of civilisation in place, a government that supports the accepted modern conceptions of law, order and ‘morality’, and reasonably abundant resources for all, such that the majority of citizens are not starving to death in the streets - these extreme scenarios are avoided. Where then can these powerful urges be exorcised? Good psychological health demands that we discharge these currents to prevent the human machine overheating or breaking down. The good news is they can work for us.

‘The most shortsighted and pernicious way of thinking wants to make the great sources of energy, those wild torrents of the soul that often stream forth so dangerously and overwhelmingly, dry up altogether, instead of taking their power into service and economising it.’

From Nietzsche’s personal notes.

But let us clarify first, what are these instincts? An instinct is an unlearned behaviour or psychological disposition, common to a whole species, that has evolved to promote biological success. However, because evolution is a painfully slow process and environmental conditions can change rapidly (over thousands rather than millions of years) the two can become misaligned.

With regard to the fundamental human drive, Nietzsche had followed in the footsteps of his once ‘great teacher’, Schopenhauer (whose ideas he later dismissed). Schopenhauer postulated a Will to Life as the essential universal dynamic. This meant that human beings, as well as all other living things, are driven by an irresistible and all-encompassing drive for self-preservation.

What Nietzsche observed was that this Will to Life did not explain human behaviour comprehensively. Think of those cases where people risk their lives for strangers, or those who abuse their bodies with drugs or alcohol, or the reality of human self-harm and suicide - how about dangerous sports? No, there was something more complicated than mere self-preservation going on here.

Nietzsche divined that, instead of a Will to Life, what was really at play was a Will to Power. The will to live, real but not fundamental as Schopenhauer has claimed, was subordinate to this Will to Power – self-preservation was only the Will to Power's most obvious manifestation. Its essence is the desire not just to survive, but to dominate. At bottom, this desire to dominate is the core human instinct seething inside each of us.

How then do we transform, or sublimate, this Will to Power in ways that are productive rather than destructive?


First we must begin to understand ourselves. This is a topic that will be explored in more detail elsewhere, but start to keep a journal where you record your self-observations. This practice is called autoethnography. Notice the conflicting emotions you have about many things and try and tease out what is going on. Notice too, the different ways you behave in different environments. For example, most of us are much more likely to act out anger when alone than when in public. We can all probably recognise the situation in the amusing video below, to one extent or another.

Physical Activity

Exercise in general, and competitive sports in particular, are an excellent way of using raw instinctual energy to achieve real health benefits as well as dampening urges to act-out in inappropriate ways.

Creative projects

You don’t need to be bashing out watercolours to exercise your creative muscles. Any project that stimulates your passion is an effective way of sublimating instinctual energy and using it constructively. It has been argued that all art, and perhaps even all culture, stems from sublimated sexual energy (a sub-category of the Will to Power). In The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche claims that ‘it is only as an aesthetic phenomenon that existence and the world are eternally justified’ and though it is a cliché to say that one should make one’s life a work of art, this is what Nietzsche urges us to do.

‘To "give style" to one's character- a great and rare art! It is practiced by those who survey all the strengths and weaknesses of their nature and then fit them into an artistic plan.’ The Gay Science

Great unifying purpose

As explored in a previous post, one must strive to discover one’s great projects – the projects to which everything else in life is subordinate. This constitutes an almost alchemical sublimation of the instincts and the realisation of the highest human purpose.

‘The formula of my happiness: a Yes, a No, a straight line, a goal.’

Twilight of the Idols

Master yourself

Finally, if the essence of life is Will to Power, how do we express this drive to dominate without becoming a bully or some kind of megalomaniac? It should be utterly obvious that the greatest power one can possess is not power over other people or power over one’s environment – it is power over one’s self. This is, in fact, the foundation of all other forms of real power.

But this is far from easy to achieve and many people spend their entire lives trying unsuccessfully to achieve some semblance of self-mastery. How can it be done?

Next time: The Nietzschean Formula for Self-Mastery.

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